Home-grown Yankee comes to Illawarra

It's a long way from Yankee Stadium to Fred Finch Park, but Graeme Lloyd felt right at home at the Berkeley ground last weekend in his role as an assistant coach of the Perth Heat in the Claxton Shield game against the NSW Patriots.As one of Australia's most celebrated baseballers, Lloyd has the honour of being the only Australian to have played in two United States Major League Baseball World Series winning teams, and with the most famous club of all, the New York Yankees, in 1996 and 1998.In 1996 the Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves 4-2 in the best of seven series and in 1998 they made a four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres.Having played at the world's best stadiums, the towering former champion left-handed relief pitcher was impressed with Fred Finch Park as a provincial venue to host Claxton Shield baseball and the tireless work done by volunteers that went into preparing the field after heavy rain threatened the fixture."It's great. Looking out here, tremendous. The infield looks great. It's a little shorter than we're used to but it's a great baseball field right here."And playing at Yankee Stadium? "That's an experience you never forget, that's for sure," Lloyd said. "You walk down the same tunnel that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig walked down."You get chills."I was lucky enough to go back there this year for the Old Timers Game and I was standing next to Yogi Berra at home plate."It was just a surreal experience with the fans and everything. It was just before a Yankees game. Just to be out there with all those other great Yankees was a pleasure."With so much American history and tradition going deep to the core of the nation itself, Lloyd, from country Victoria, belongs in one of the most exclusive of sporting groups - a World Series winner with the New York Yankees, not once but twice.With his friendly, easygoing, down-to-earth nature befitting a boy who grew up on his family's farm near Geelong making him such an endearing character, he would have been right at home with those truly great Yankees' baseballers.Mind you, that's now, when he's retired from playing. One can only imagine that it would be no joy for batters on the plate facing him bearing down on them from the pitcher's mound.While he also played with the Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals and Florida Marlins in an 11-year playing career in the Major Leagues, it's those two World Series wins with the Yankees that give Lloyd a pride of place in Australian baseball."The World Series in '96 and '98 certainly were experiences. To do it with the New York Yankees was just amazing," Lloyd said."We had a tickertape parade and there were three million people lining the streets going down Fifth Avenue."Truly, those experiences you never forget. To do it with the Yankees was magnificent."The Yankees are one of the best known sporting clubs in the world."They certainly are," Lloyd said"They've won 26 championships and no other team - professional team - I don't believe have come close to that."Even though he is an assistant coach at Perth, Lloyd retains a close affinity for Geelong."Mum and Dad are still there on the farm," he said.How did he become involved in baseball?"My sister had a boyfriend when I was 10 years old and he said, 'Come down and have a game of baseball'. And I put my hand up to pitch and that's how it all started."Lloyd's friendly smile grew even wider as he laughed, then shook his head in amazement about where the game has taken him since he began playing all those years ago.And in his deep voice with a mixture of that Australian and American accent which comes from being an Aussie who has spent a significant time Stateside, Lloyd says: "I mean, to think it would take me there (Yankee Stadium) was beyond my dreams."Once Lloyd began to play, he thought that maybe there was a chance he could make it at a high level, never thinking that two World Series was a realistic goal."I remember seeing a World Series and actually I watched some players that were playing there - one of them was my manager when I made it to the big league with the Milwaukee Brewers, Phil Garner," Lloyd said."And that was one of the first tapes and it was on the reel, so it was projected onto a screen."That was the first big league baseball game I ever saw."I was just a kid and right then I thought, 'Wow, it would be amazing to play over there'."Nowadays kids can watch Major League Baseball on pay TV and can learn from the world's best players."My parents used to hang out for it. It wasn't there before Foxtel came in and satellite TV started."It was really funny. The first time they ever got Foxtel, when they got it working I was actually pitching right there and then."I was in the game when they first got Foxtel so that was pretty ironic."It's so true (how Major League Baseball now can be viewed around the world). You can have a phone and watch a game these days. It's truly amazing."As a coach with the Perth Heat, Lloyd is enjoying his role putting something back into the game in his home country."I'm a baseballer. I've been out of the game a little bit and I got the itch, especially going back to Yankee Stadium this year," he said."It was great seeing all the guys I used to play with and all the old time guys."I'm certainly energised by all that and coming back here is the next step, trying to help these guys and hopefully pass some knowledge on and hopefully make them better."Lloyd is positive there are Australian players who can rise to the heights he has climbed."Absolutely. This year we saw (Sydneysider Grant) Balfour. He pitched extremely well for the Tampa Bay Rays (who went down to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series) this year."We've got guys that are on the 40-man roster. I think there are four or five young Australians that are really on the cusp of making the big leagues and I think over 80 signed and playing professionally in America right now."It's looking great for baseball in Australia."Taking Claxton Shield baseball to provincial places like Wollongong and Geelong can only be good for the game."That's right. We did a trip up to Port Hedland as well and they have a great baseball following up there."It's great to see it going through the rural areas and like you said, Geelong, I grew up there. So it's great to see baseball doing well."

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